The Johnson Family Chair in Water Resources and Watershed Ecology: Vision Statement
The LRWP thanks Professor Lathrop, the newly-appointed Johnson Family Chair in Water Resources and Watershed Ecology at Rutgers University, for sharing his vision for how Rutgers can provide academic leadership to improve the health of the Raritan River. For more information about the Johnson Family Chair and Professor Lathrop’s new position please see the Rutgers Today Press Release.
By Richard G. Lathrop Jr.
Modern society is increasingly coming to recognize water as a critical resource, on a par with oil and gas. Water scarcity, whether due to prolonged drought, political instability, regional conflict or any combination of the above, is at a crisis stage on the US West Coast, across the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe. Point sources of water contamination or more diffuse sources of pollution related to urban, suburban or agricultural land uses is also of increasing concern. Ensuring access to clean and abundant water to sustain both human society and healthy ecosystems over the 21st century will require a concerted effort on the part of government, academic, private and non-profit sectors. From an academic standpoint, addressing this challenge will require not only an interdisciplinary approach bridging the social, political and natural sciences but also a watershed perspective that links the land surface to downstream aquatic systems. The Johnson Family Chair in Water Resources and Watershed Ecology is intended to undergird such an effort here at Rutgers University.
In the heart of the most densely populated region in the nation, the Raritan River Watershed serves as a “natural laboratory” to study how human actions and policies both negatively and positively affect ecological health of a watershed system. One of my major focal areas as Johnson Family Chair will be co-leading the Sustainable Raritan River Initiative (SRRI). The objective of the SRRI is to work with various stakeholders in the watershed to balance social, economic and environmental objectives towards the common goal of restoring the Raritan River, its tributaries and its estuary for current and future generations. Since the founding of the SRRI in 2009, the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy has provided academic leadership in the policy realm and the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences in the scientific realm. The SRRI in turn partners with the Sustainable Raritan River Collaborative (SRRC) representing a network of over 130 organizations, governmental entities and businesses in the Raritan River Basin. As Johnson Family Chair, I will provide strong scientific leadership to chart SRRI’s future direction and ensure that issues of critical significance to the Raritan watershed are addressed. In addition to my own research, I will coordinate with various individual scientists, departments and research centers to make sure that Rutgers University’s scientific and technical expertise is brought to bear. Working in concert, we should be able to achieve tangible results towards restoring the Raritan River and Bay to a vibrant and biologically diverse ecosystem for the benefit of present and future citizens of the state and region. Further, the lessons learned from the science and policy research conducted under SRRI’s rubric will transcend the local environs and have relevance elsewhere in the United States, as well as globally.
Within the University, as the Johnson Family Chair I will play a key role in developing and promoting an academic agenda centered on the Raritan River and its watershed. Such an academic agenda will seek to engage a variety of curricula, both on- and off-campus, to make greater use of the Raritan River and the Rutgers Ecological Preserve as part of their educational program. These places provide experiential learning sites where students can observe and collect data as well as get their “hands dirty” by undertaking experimental manipulations and be involved in hands-on restoration and enhancement, design or arts projects. Within the EcoPreserve or on the Raritan, students can put into practice classroom or online learning in a real world environment. These field experiences will be coupled with advanced information technology to integrate field data collection with real-time sensor networks and geospatial information systems to make the EcoPreserve and the River a natural classroom as well as a living laboratory. One great advantage of the EcoPreserve and the River is that they are right on campus and accessible to students via the campus bus system; thus making their use for instructional purposes both time and cost effective. While our alma mater celebrates the University’s location “on the banks of the old Raritan” the University does not have ready access to the river proper. To help rectify this situation, the Chair will spearhead a feasibility study for the development of a Raritan River Watershed teaching/research field facility to be able to bring classes to and out on the water.
The Rutgers New Brunswick-Piscataway campus is blessed to have 400 acres of open space right at its very core, the Rutgers Ecological Preserve and Natural Teaching Area. As Johnson Family Chair, I will serve as Faculty Director of the Ecological Preserve, building on past success to further integrate the EcoPreserve into the life of the University and the surrounding community. As outlined above, the University has the opportunity to build a world-class educational program around the EcoPreserve and lead the United States in the academic pursuit of natural areas/open space stewardship, ecological restoration and leadership training. As the “voice” for the EcoPreserve as the University moves towards implementing the recently announced Physical Master Plan, I will strive to ensure that the role of the EcoPreserve to enhance student instruction and community quality of life is more fully realized.
Personal Background: Richard G. Lathrop Jr.
I have 25+ years of experience working with a diverse array of federal, state, and local government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including watershed associations, land trusts, environmental NGOs, federal and state environmental agencies, and regional land/ocean management agencies. My interaction with these various groups has been to integrate insights from ecology and geography with the application of geo-spatial information science and technology to provide a “big picture” view that spans from an individual wetland or forest to the watershed to multi-state regions. More specifically, I have focused on measuring and modeling the how human land use activities and natural habitat change in the watershed affect downstream aquatic and estuarine structure and function. For example, as part of the Barnegat Bay National Estuary Program, I have been investigating the spatial and temporal dynamics of salt marshes and seagrass beds, both key nursery habitats for a number of commercially important fish and shellfish species, as key indicators of estuarine health. Working with the above partners, I have attempted to translate that understanding into effective and appropriate approaches and policies to improve natural resource management and land use planning. For example, in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy and other local partners, we have created the Restoration Explorer, an online tool that provides communities with a simple way to visualize where beneficial coastal restoration and enhancement projects are most appropriate based on ecological and engineering data. In my work, I have on multiple occasions assembled and lead multi-disciplinary teams to address water resources and watershed ecological issues. While much of my work has been conducted using New Jersey and MidAtlantic case studies, the implications of this research are relevant much more broadly, to elsewhere in the United States, as well as globally.
In 2009, Dean Robert Goodman appointed me as Faculty Director of the Rutgers Ecological Preserve with the charge to actively promote its teaching, research, active/passive recreation, and resource protection mission. I sought this position as a means to further my understanding of ‘on-the-ground’ natural resource management by being engaged personally in managing and restoring this 400 acre property, as well as an opportunity to further student engagement in learning and appreciation of the natural environment.
During my tenure:1) use of the Preserve has increased for academic purposes though a range of formal and informal instructional activities engaging middle and high school (including underserved youth), undergraduate, graduate and ROTC students; 2) use has increased for student research projects investigating such topics as the dispersal and control of invasive plants; 3) service learning opportunities have been provided to Rutgers courses (Principles of Natural Resource Management) and clubs (RU Outdoors Club, Naturalist Club) and outside groups (4-H, middle-high school environmental clubs); 4) natural resource values have been promoted though proactive meadow management, deer population control, riparian zone restoration, and wildlife habitat enhancements; 5) a forest vegetation inventory undertaken to provide a baseline on the forest community composition and health; 6) access has been increased by developing an extensive (7.5 miles), well maintained trail system and the opening up a new trailhead on Livingston campus; and 7) outdoor recreational opportunities have been enhanced through organized events that accommodate hundreds of participants (RU Muddy, Run for the Woods, Orienteering meets).
In closing, I grew up in the Raritan River Watershed and have lived 40 of my 56 years here. I hike its woods, paddle its waters and observe its wildlife. Thus I am personally invested in making the Raritan River Watershed a better place to live for its human inhabitants as well as its flora and fauna.